Politics

Speaker Mike Johnson’s Favorite Way to Dodge Questions: Answering the Phone


It was his first day back in Washington after a long winter break, and Speaker Mike Johnson was under pressure to pass a short-term funding bill to avoid a government shutdown within days.

With hard-right Republicans in full revolt over the plan, everyone in the Capitol was eager to know what the inexperienced leader would do next, and whether it might lead to his ouster.

After spending less than six minutes answering questions at a news conference, Mr. Johnson shut down reporters’ shouted questions with a silent cue, like a cab light switched off, signaling he was no longer available: He held his smartphone to his ear and speed-walked out of sight.

It is a ploy that Mr. Johnson has used frequently to dodge questions since the fall when he won the position of speaker, and with it the tricky job of governing with a deeply divided and shrinking Republican majority in the House.

Before he was elected in October, Mr. Johnson, a Louisiana Republican in his fourth term, routinely stopped for hallway interviews. They are a staple of a lawmaker’s life on Capitol Hill, where credentialed reporters roam freely in all but a few secure spaces, buttonholing members of Congress wherever they can find them. Mr. Johnson would often stop and talk in the marble corridors surrounding the House floor, submitting to impromptu and sometimes lengthy question-and-answer sessions with reporters before and after votes.

But since winning the gavel, Mr. Johnson has taken to avoiding that ritual, employing one of the most common tactics in a member of Congress’s playbook to do so: talking, or pretending to talk, on the phone. These days, as he strides through the Capitol from his office to the House floor and back, Mr. Johnson’s preferred posture is inaccessible. And it most often involves using his iPhone as his buffer.

The “on the phone” gesture serves as a shield against the unwanted hallway interrogation, an all-purpose nonverbal rebuff that conveys busyness without seeming to stonewall, and carries with it the possibility of extreme awkwardness if ignored. (Is it a fake phone call, a sick kid or the president of the United States? It’s hard for journalists to tell who, if anyone, is on the other end of the line — and that is the point.)

On the occasions when he’s not holding his phone to his ear while walking, Mr. Johnson is sometimes taking notes or reviewing papers. Photographers have complained that it is difficult to capture a picture of Mr. Johnson looking up.

And if he’s not busying himself with another task, Mr. Johnson still only rarely engages in questions about the work before the House, or anything else. What was he doing to celebrate his birthday, a reporter asked him on Tuesday morning, his 52nd birthday, as he made his way through the Capitol.

“Working,” Mr. Johnson replied brusquely. He answered no other questions.

His remote approach is a striking change from the way Mr. Johnson’s two immediate predecessors handled the public-facing portion of the most powerful job in Congress. Kevin McCarthy, a chatty extrovert, couldn’t resist speaking with reporters multiple times a day as he made his way around the Capitol, engaging in walk-and-talks and holding impromptu news conferences in Statuary Hall.

As he became more embattled, Mr. McCarthy seemed to engage with the press even more, sometimes holding several spur-of-the-moment gaggles a day and entering unexpectedly into television reporters’ live shots, where he was game to talk more. Even on his worst days, Mr. McCarthy always seemed to make time for the media, even if his sometimes garbled utterances needed to be cleaned up with yet another back-and-forth with the press.

Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi also frequently answered questions as reporters trailed her around the building. She held a solo weekly news conference as well, typically taking questions for about 30 minutes.

Senator Mitch McConnell, the longtime Republican leader from Kentucky, also holds weekly question-and-answer sessions with reporters outside the Senate chamber. But outside his formal news conference, the taciturn Mr. McConnell has a more direct and chillier way of deflecting hallway queries he wants to avoid: He simply stares straight ahead and keeps walking, as if the questioner does not exist.

Some observers speculate that Mr. Johnson’s comparatively skittish posture stems from his inexperience in his new post. His aides insist it is strategic; he doesn’t want to muddy the message of the day. Aware that all of his comments are now scrutinized under a microscope, Mr. Johnson’s approach assumes that less is more.

That means joining a weekly news conference with other House Republican leaders, a group affair where his is one voice among several, and little else. His aides note that he adds to his slim media footprint under the Capitol dome with a bigger presence in television interviews.

Commuting through the Capitol can be a conversational minefield for lawmakers. Journalists and photographers, who lurk in every hallway and stairwell, are an accepted part of the ecosystem of Capitol Hill, and answering their questions about the news of the day is an expected part of the job for elected officials.

For those who love attention, the media scrutiny is a perk.

“My motto is, ‘Almost all press is good press,’” said Representative Ro Khanna, Democrat of California, who has a reputation for often being unavoidable for comment. Mr. Khanna said it had never occurred to him to use his phone to avoid questions. He said he’d be more likely to hang up if a reporter approached him to chat.

But for lawmakers less fond of answering questions, the “on the phone” strategy is a handy way to signal that journalists seeking comments and quips should hunt elsewhere.

“I would actually do it as a joke,” said Al Franken, the former Minnesota senator and comedian. “I would just do that thing with my hand, thumb in ear, like, ‘I’m on the phone.’ Sometimes I’d say I’m on the phone with the president.”

Mr. Franken said it could be an effective way to dodge reporters, but he admitted it hasn’t been a totally believable strategy for navigating the Capitol since the Blackberry went out of fashion. “He doesn’t want to be accessible,” he said of Mr. Johnson. “That’s sort of up to him. Then he has to just live with the consequences, which is your writing a piece about it.”

For some, the consequences include being caught in a lie. Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin, pretended to be on a call as he left the Capitol in June 2022, as reporters pressed him to explain his role in trying to deliver a slate of fake electors to an aide to former Vice President Mike Pence.

“I’m on the phone,” Mr. Johnson said. Except he wasn’t.

“No, you’re not — I can see your phone; I can see your screen,” Frank Thorp V, a reporter for NBC News, responded.

Mr. Johnson eventually gave up the ruse, putting his phone back in his pocket and responding to the reporters trailing him. (“That’s a complete nonstory,” he finally said, adding, “I don’t know what you’re even concerned about here.”)

Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, Republican of Georgia, who has been threatening to oust Mr. Johnson from the speakership if he brings up any bill that includes more funding to Ukraine, said the phone trick just isn’t her style.

“I don’t think you’ll see me walking around on the phone,” said Ms. Greene, who in recent years has taken a friendlier approach with the mainstream media she used to employ as a foil. “But I’ll look to see if Mike Johnson tries to avoid me like that.”



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